Why Israel's Brain Stopped Draining

It may sound surprising, but when it comes to the rate of emigration, Israel is better off than most of the world's other countries.

The number of Israelis who emigrated declined 30 percent between 2006 and 2010, and the country’s rate of emigration is especially low when compared with that of other Western countries, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. CBS data show that emigration reached its lowest point in recent years in 2010, the last year for which data is available on the number of Israelis who have lived abroad for more than a year. The emigration trend is believed to have remained unchanged since then.

In 2006 the country’s emigration rate was 3.2 per 1,000 people, a total of 22,400 people. Four years later, two out of every 1,000 Israelis − 15,600, in numerical terms − moved abroad.

“The extent of emigration from Israel in recent years has been relatively small,” says Michal Sabah, a doctoral candidate in demographics from Hebrew University and an official at the CBS, who is studying the topic. By contrast, she adds, “emigration scholars in the world usually speak about large numbers of people which sometimes alter the population balance.”

Sabah says one possible explanation for the decline in Israel’s rate of emigration is the instability of overseas markets in recent years: “The people who seek to leave
Israel do so after they have studied the options overseas, generally in the United States, which is the destination for some 70 percent of the emigrants. In 2006, the number of Israelis living there was 142,000, a minuscule percentage of the overall U.S. population, which that year totaled 259 million. It is safe to assume that recurring reports about instability in the markets abroad in recent years, as opposed to relative stability in Israel, influences people who simply wish to improve their position economically, professionally and so forth.”

Israel is considered an “exporter” of brains, specifically those of young and educated people. Some 10.5 percent of Israelis who received doctoral degrees between 1985 and 2000 relocated abroad for an extended period of time ‏(longer than three years‏), according to CBS data for 2011. All in all, 5 percent of all Israelis who received an academic degree of some kind during those same 15 years reside abroad.

Israel is better off in this regard than most other developed nations, where the brain drain is worse. A comprehensive OECD survey in 2006 found the rate of educated Israelis living abroad to be 5.9 per 1,000 people, which puts us on a par with Finland.

In Ireland, in comparison, the figure was 18.1 per 1,000 people, while in Britain and Switzerland, it exceeded 11 emigrants per 1,000. A comparison with 21 countries has Israel doing relatively better on the emigration front. In the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, for example, the emigration rate exceeds 7 out of every 1,000 people. The U.S. had the lowest rate of educated emigrants − only 0.7 per 1,000 people.

A poll reported in Haaretz last December found that some 37 percent of Israelis say they are considering moving to another country in the future. According to data collected by Yossi Harpaz, a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University, which were published in Haaretz in 2010, 150,000 Israelis held additional citizenship from countries such as Germany, Austria, Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania.

Oded Hirsch